Yesterday I got a haircut for the first time in maybe four months. I just generally object to the whole practice. If my teeth ache, I go to the dentist. That seems logical. If my shoulder hurts, I visit my doctor. Of course. If the Prius inexplicably refuses to start, I call AAA. Naturally.
But when my hair grows for too long, I need to pay an expert to fix it? Really?
I yearn for the brief periods of nirvana — every 5 years or so — when my wife tolerates my getting a buzz cut. Down to the nubs. Bar of soap for shampoo. No bed head. No hair products. No need to pay a hair expert. I have accumulated a small arsenal of store-bought clippers that work just fine, thank you very much. I buzz my own hair, re-buzz it myself for as long as the haircut is tolerated, and skip giddily past all the haircut experts on Chestnut Street. Big smile on my face. “Sorry, no, won’t be handing over $50 today for you to work your black magic sorcery on my locks. All good!”
Eventually, though, the look evolves from Aryan Brotherhood to Little Lord Fauntleroy to Hugh Jackman’s “Wolverine” to Jackson Teller. When the parents of the Little League kids I coach start scanning the parking lot looking for coach’s Harley — he must have one — that’s when I know it’s time to return to the hair expert.
Fortunately for me, by now, my hair has grown out so much that said hair expert could not possibly remember me as the skin-headed weirdo blissfully skipping past their storefront. Repeatedly.
So, I act like I come here all the time. I absolutely cannot have my cover blown. Absolutely must avoid having done to me whatever hair experts do to non-believers like me. I fall in line with the regular people, like the time I took Communion to impress my high school girlfriend’s parents. Ignore the fact that I am not now, nor have I ever been Catholic (or anything else, really). Desperate times.
So there I am sitting in the black, faux-leather swivel chair. Pungent scent of vinegar in the air. Clumps of dark hair clippings scattered on the tile floor. I’ve managed to avoid suspicion, just a regular among regulars, my ongoing pedestrian chit-chat preserving my cover. “Oh, same as last time, I guess.” “Just a little trim.” “How have you been?” “The place looks great.” “Your son sure has gotten big.” That type-deal.
Settled in now, I glance in the mirror at the true believer sitting to my left. At first glance, I identify that she’s quite old, has likely had one of those space helmet hair dryers on for some time, and is now having metal or foil clips plucked from her hair, one at a time. Her lips are pursed, not in an unpleasant way, but in a way that indicates this is old hat for her. She comes here all the time, probably has for years. And is treated by the hair experts with deference. Respect. As if they were tending to royalty, even.
My first reaction is, wow, I’m not sure this place has the right kind of hair experts for my particular needs. What the hell am I doing here? That’s a pretty broad skill set, after all — primping an elderly woman’s ‘do for the second time this week and then evening out a haircut I’ve been giving myself for the past few months as if I had been living in the deep woods. None of the Yelp reviews said anything about this. And I start to spiral downwards. Feeling foolish for giving in to the hair expert’s siren song. For not just opening up my back of clippers in-need-of-a-charge at home. For a moment, I even entertain faking a phone call, manufacturing a phony emergency to extract myself from this ill-fitting situation before I end up under the space helmet.
And then I return my glance in the mirror, eyes angled back to the chair on my left.
My second reaction, after studying the familiar-looking face a bit longer, is the spirit-lifting realization that she is alive! Our former landlord of 13 years is sitting right next to me. Her husband, a former New York Yankees shortstop whom we met only once, passed away 12 years ago at the age of 91. We met the sprite, twinkling-eyed gentlemen on just one occasion. We still talk about that visit.
Fifteen years ago, Hilary and I slept on the bare wooden floor of our flat (their flat) on our first night here. Duraflame log crackling in the fireplace that did not yet have a screen. Chewing on our first of many Pizza Orgasmica pies cradled on bent paper plates. Thrilled to have found this modest flat as a start to our new lives out here. Heads fairly spinning with what the future would bring.
Hilary went into labor with both of our boys in that flat. Our oldest’s first month at home sadly coincided with the horrors of 9/11. We cradled him on the living room couch while buildings fell down on the other side of the country and everything changed for every side of the country.
Memorable Thanksgiving feasts, Christmas mornings, gatherings of life-long friends and new friends, and birthday cakes bearing one more candle than last year. Countless games of backyard catch. Max demanding that I toss fly balls to the very edges of our ridiculously narrow lawn, allowing him to make spectacular leaping catches just before landing in a patch of flowers. (His younger brother now demands the same, but in a different backyard venue.)
All of these things swirled around in my head as I stared at our former landlady in the mirror. I was still watching these images on “play” in my mind’s eye when she stood up from her chair with a some ceremony. Grabbed a metal handle and whipped it only slightly such that gleaming black plastic segments snapped together magically with a “whew-CLICK” into a sturdy walking stick. Same pursed lips and dignified look of indifference during this particular trick, by the way.
She passed behind my chair, on a mission to whatever was supposed to be next on the agenda that day. She looked so…graceful, humble, experienced, satisfied. I was dumbstruck, trying to calculate her age now, while also trying to figure out whether and how I could get her attention to say “hello” without interrupting her elegance. It almost seemed wrong to insert myself.
I managed to croak, “Mrs. Crosetti? Norma?” a couple times as she passed, oblivious. I began to lose hope, until her hair expert tapped politely on Norma’s shoulder and pointed to me in the mirror; the man with another hair expert’s fingers stuffed in his ungainly tufts of hair. I’m sure I surprised her. As I’ve mentioned, this is probably not the kind of place a lady like her would expect to see a gent like me.
But a couple quick prompts from me, and a hint of recognition lit up her marbled eyes and the corners of her mouth tilted up just a bit. She asked if we still lived in the neighborhood. I answered, “We sure do, on the same block!” Somehow, I thought she needed to understand how much we valued our neighborhood. Her neighborhood. And that we will continue to raise our family here and take care of the neighborhood as she had. “That’s nice. Nice to see you.”
I tried to communicate with my own eyes and a perhaps-overdone smile of my own a sense of appreciation for her long life, and gratitude for the role she played in my own family’s life. Whether she picked up on that, I don’t know. She was already in motion towards whatever item was next on her agenda.
When I asked a couple minutes later, one of the hair experts told me Norma is 100. “One hundred,” I gasped. And still living in this neighborhood. Still living on her own. Still moving with so much dignity. With a presence well-earned from 100 years of walking this earth.
“Does this mean I’m not even halfway to where I’ll end up?” I thought to myself.
A half-century from now, will I be roaming the streets of my neighborhood with a snap-together walking cane, too? Will Hilary meet me for a coffee? Or will I be alone, our coffees over with, as Norma and Frank no longer share coffees? Children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren scattered about? Or maybe even close by?
But I do know that I’m grateful for my serendipitous meeting with Norma. Maybe I need to visit the hair expert more often.
Thanks for reading.